The Puerto Rican Lockhorns Reunion

by

05/04/2008

Crosby Street, 10003

Neighborhood: SoHo

I moved to New York City on Friday, August 19, 1994. After twenty-one years in South Jersey and four more in Philadelphia, a move to New York seemed to be the most momentous event of my life. As I hooked my gypsy rental van around the Turnpike to face the skyline, even the cars’ lights seemed to make jazz hands.

I had finally escaped the Delaware Valley for good, with its round-voweled reminders of the Jersey boy who I am. I wanted to be a writer, you see, and to do that, people told me, you have to go to New York.

“You can always find a street corner,” my Rutgers writing professor had said as he looked at printouts of my poems, “where people will clap for whatever you’re doing,”

The van was packed with trashbags of summer clothes and CDs. I sold everything else. With an acceptance letter from NYU and student loans in the pipeline, I set up in my SoHo sublet on Crosby Street.

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, it got up to 81 degrees at the JFK Airport that afternoon. I remember it being so steamy and humid that I couldn’t see past the forklifts that sprayed broccoli florets onto my sneakers. After lugging my milkcrates up six flights, I limp up Spring Street, sweat-soaked, to get a bottle of water. I spy a familiar female silhouette.

It was Deena, my ex-girlfriend from college.

We hadn’t seen each other in three years, maybe four, but I recognize her long red hair and–there’s no other way of putting it–her extremely large chest. I knew she went New York to intern for a theater the summer after she graduated, but didn’t know she stayed. As I approach her, four questions pop in my head:

1. What were the chances she’d stay in New York? 2. What were the chances I’d see her the first day I moved here? 3. What were the chances that in a city of 14 million people, my ex-girlfriend would be my next-door fucking neighbor? 4. What were the chances I was in immanent physical danger?

Things did not end well between Deena and me, you see. We were nicknamed “the Puerto Rican Lockhorns” by our friends. Our loud fights, complete with bottle-throwing and her swinging punches on my chest, blended in with the Latino teenagers in Camden. Even when we were calm, we resembled the comic strip couple, Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn.

***

Let me take you back to two years before, when Deena and I first met at Rutgers University in Camden. In the Summer of 1989, I had an affair with Rosie DiBerardinis, a philosophy major at Rosemont College—Villanova’s all-women Radcliffe. Three years my senior, she smoked long cigarettes, drank black coffee all day, and said words like hermeneutics and structuralism a lot. She wore leopard prints. She was also engaged. Our dangerous liaison ended when she dumped me and went back to her math prodigy fiancé, but not before what was perhaps the nerdiest fistfight ever on the Rutgers-Camden campus quad, in which both combatants agreed to set their glasses aside on a bench before wrestling on the wet spring grass.

It was after this chain of events that I developed this theory about exclusively dating women who came from my same working class background–my “station,” I called it. Up until then, I could only have one-night stands, and then something would go wrong–I couldn’t understand them, or mostly I thought they couldn’t understand my salt-of-the-earth backstory in one sitting.

So in August 1989, when I met Deena working as a freshman orientation mentor, I thought I had met someone who would understand me. She had high Jersey hair, had gone to the same Catholic high school as me, and cursed every other word. Her father was an out-of-work factory worker, her mother an itinerant waitress. As I explained the vagaries of registration and parking lots and safe places to walk in the most crime-ridden city in the country, I envisioned Deena as Eliza Doolittle to my Henry Higgins.

Two years later, after countless breakups and reunions, we’re living together. I rent the first floor of a house in the suburbs for us to live in as she finished her last classes. I still shelved books at the Rutgers library. I worked other odd jobs to fill my days and held out hope Deena would change her mind and move with me to New York when she graduated. I wanted to be a writer, you see.

Our home life by then had turned into a community theater production of Look Back in Anger. One night, after one of her many drinking binges, Deena crashes her car and gets arrested for driving without a license. I bailed her out the next morning in Toyota truck I borrowed so I could take the GREs. She curses me out for taking my time getting her. She goes out again that night, and staggers back into the house, an open bottle of wine under her arm.

Deena regards me on the couch, reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. She seethes.

“Look at you,” she says. “You’re so fucking pretentious.” I think I am readying myself for graduate school and what I envision as a life in letters. “Do you think you’re too good to go out to bars?”

“I don’t go out to underage bars anymore,” I tell her, sipping my coffee. Let the kitchen-sink-drama begin, I think. I am past asking her about driving drunk, driving without a license, or parking her Monte Carlo diagonally across the backyard.

“Fine,” she says. “Why don’t you just leave?” She’s leans forward to make her shouts heard. “Just fucking run away like your asshole father did.” She slams the bedroom door.

Toward those final days, I didn’t holler back. Deena had me sleep downstairs in our basement. I had taken over my uncle’s paper route, and she didn’t want to be woken up before 10am. After another morning of door-stepping Philly Inquirers, I loaded up my clothes in the pickup truck. As the sun came up, I drove over the Ben Franklin Bridge, signed a lease on a one-bedroom efficiency near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and filled my living room with trash bags of clothes.

By the time I drove around to pick up what was left, Deena had drug it all out onto the curb for the trashmen to pick up. We never spoke again.

***

So here we are, the Puerto Rican Lockhorns, reunited on Crosby Street. I picture her deflating any new persona I might invent as I walk uptown to writing class, or as I skip up to those corners to where, my professor promised years before, people clapped for whatever you did.

We must have said hi to each other, Deena and I, but I don’t remember. Maybe it was because we both were struggling to walk on the wet cobblestone, or the high buildings shrunk any high drama we could muster.

The first thing I noticed about Deena is that she was calm. And we actually hugged each other. I apologize for my sweaty shirt. I break the news to her I am her new neighbor. She acts surprised. And then she does something I would have never thought would have happened: She follows me up to my apartment. She’s curious to see what a rent-controlled version of her apartment looks like.

After we get up those six flights, she looks around at my apartment’s old fixtures, the uneven floor, the portraits of naked men on brick walls painted white, and the tenement-style walk-up toilet.

“Your place is like some Stonewall-era gay man’s place,” she says, looking around. “It’s frozen in time.”

She’s right. I was subletting from an older gay man I made friends with in Philly. Deena’s voice is even-toned, mature. Instead of stone-washed jeans and a tight shirt, she wears an all-black outfit. Instead of a bedazzled purse filled with a one-hit bowl and Bud pony bottles, she carries a messenger bag. She has, in short, become a New Yorker.

I realize it’s now my turn to be the unsophisticated yahoo. And I am embarrassed to write this, but before we say goodbye, I ask her which is the best train to take to get to the Upper East Side. I have to go to an NYU orientation party, I tell her. She hands me one of those miniature laminated subway maps.

“Take it,” she says. “I don’t need it anymore.” We say goodbye.

As the months go by, I hear her yell out the window down to her current boyfriend, whom she has kicked to the curb. I will late learn his nickname is “Pigeon,” and her voice as she shouts that word over and over again bounces off valley of Crosby Street. It pierces into my ears before I can close the windows.

I put my face in the pillow. I feel much better about moving. Both times.

 

Daniel Nester wrote two strange books on his obsession with the rock band Queen. He is now finishing up How to Be Inappropriate, a collection of essays from which this piece is excerpted, and Cousin Mike: a Memoir.

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